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586: Who Do We Think We Are?

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Prologue

Sean Cole

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Sean Cole. Ira Glass is going to be back next week.

So Ted Cruz dropped out of the race this week for president, and a lot of Republican voters were thrilled. But a lot of them were heartbroken and confused, asking themselves a lot of questions about themselves and their party and what they stand for. And I wanted to talk with my colleague Zoe Chace because she'd been doing a lot of campaign coverage for the show, talking to Cruz supporters.

Zoe Chace

Hi, Sean.

Sean Cole

Hello.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, I was worried about the Cruz supporters, to be honest. Some people had been waiting for 30 years for somebody like Ted Cruz to get as far as he did-- this strong, Christian, very conservative evangelical candidate. And there was one guy I knew that might be pretty heartbroken, and I wanted to check in with him. I had to call Tony.

Sean Cole

And just say who Tony is again.

Zoe Chace

Tony Beam is a radio host in South Carolina. Conservative, evangelical Christian talk radio. Remember, we did a story on Tony a couple months ago. And the issue was that when his evangelical listeners started embracing Donald Trump, Tony felt betrayed and confused and upset.

Sean Cole

So how is he taking the news?

Zoe Chace

He couldn't even bring himself to watch it on TV.

Tony Beam

My wife told me. This is exactly what happened. I was sitting in the living room, playing the guitar, when my wife got home last night. And she put-- because I hadn't turned any of this stuff on. I knew what it was going to be. I couldn't take the Trump edition of Fox News. So I'm sitting there playing the guitar, and she came in and put her hand on my shoulder and said, "I'm really sorry. I just heard that Cruz dropped out."

Zoe Chace

What song were you playing?

Tony Beam

I'm just learning. Believe it or not, I'm 58 years old, and I'm trying to learn to play the guitar. So I was playing a little Creedence Clearwater Revival because I'm a big John Fogerty fan. So I was playing "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?"

[MUSIC - "HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THE RAIN?"]

Sean Cole

It occurs to me, Zoe, that a lot of people who were upset about this, they can sort of just go hide or drink somewhere. And he has to be on the radio, upset.

Zoe Chace

He has to go on the radio, live, at 7:00 in the morning with all his feelings.

Tony Beam

"All right, good morning, everybody. The world keeps turning."

I cracked the microphone and I said, OK, it's a Trump kind of day. The Trumpists are trumpeting. And so here's my question to you listening to the show.

"The question of the day is, are you going to vote for Hillary or one of her top donors?"

Zoe Chace

He's talking about Donald Trump.

Tony Beam

"That's pretty much the choice that we're left with. We've got Hillary or a Hillary supporter. So there you go."

Zoe Chace

Tony is never going to get behind Donald Trump. He sees him as a fake conservative. He's just an opportunist.

Sean Cole

He doesn't share his values.

Zoe Chace

Right, he just grabs principles when he wants them and then just drops them when he doesn't anymore.

Sean Cole

Right.

Zoe Chace

Tony has built his entire life around Christian values, and he doesn't think that Trump has those. And now he's in this situation where he's looking ahead over the next couple months. He has a live radio show, two hours every single day. He's going to be dealing with this. So I asked him, Tony, what is the plan? How are you going to handle this on the radio?

Tony Beam

I'm just going to talk about what's going on. It's going to be kind of like there's been a wreck. And I'm going to describe it. You know, the rescue efforts.

Zoe Chace

Like you're reporting on a big natural disaster or something.

Tony Beam

Yeah. Yeah.

Zoe Chace

What do you think your listeners want you to do? What are they looking for from you?

Tony Beam

Unity. Hold hands. Sing "Kumbaya." And to be fair, listen, I've been much more conservative than our nominee for the last three or four cycles.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, Mitt Romney, John McCain.

Tony Beam

Yeah, Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole. So I've always told people, look, the primary is where we make a decision as a party. And then we've got to come together and vote for the nominee.

And so now I've got people pounding on me. Well, you're a big hypocrite because your man lost, and now you won't unify. You won't get behind Trump.

Well, to me it's a completely different scenario. I've never felt like I was voting for the lesser of two evils. I didn't think those guys were evil. I thought they were different from me. I wished they were more conservative.

Zoe Chace

Right, they just weren't your top pick.

Tony Beam

That wasn't my top pick. I mean, I can't vote for Donald Trump for president.

Sean Cole

So when you did the first story, there was this guy.

Zoe Chace

Barry.

Sean Cole

Yes, Barry, who was like the Trump interpreter.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, he called Tony all the time to harass him about Donald Trump.

Sean Cole

Yes. And did he call this time?

Zoe Chace

Of course. He called the morning after Cruz had dropped out. Tony said, of course Barry called him and tried to sell him on Trump and party unity.

Tony Beam

Barry and I, look, we have a good relationship. And he was telling me-- he said, "man, there's room for you, brother. You can get on the Trump train with me." He said, it's not-- because I played the sound bite where Trump was talking about unity and we're going to love everybody.

Donald Trump

"This country, which is very, very divided in so many different ways, is going to become one beautiful, loving country. And we're going to love each other. We're going to cherish each other. We're going to take care of each other. And we're going to have--"

Tony Beam

And then Barry said, "yeah, man, this is not the Trump Train. This is the Love Train. You've got to get on board."

Barry Chisholm

"It's not the Trump Train anymore. It's the Love Train."

Tony Beam

"It's the what? Love Train?"

[LAUGHTER]

"Bob, you've got to find-- I've got Bob over here. Bob's got to find "The Love Train" by The O'Jays. So we'll pull that up in just a minute. We're going to have another Woodstock. I mean, it's going to be 1969 all over where there will be people singing, are you going to San Francisco? It's going to be a Republican love-in. Not."

Zoe Chace

Tony remembers those first Republican debates when Trump was talking and saying all this outlandish stuff. And his listeners were calling in and being like, we love this guy, and this guy is speaking for me. And it just felt so viscerally wrong to him, like he was like, this is not who we are. This is not who we Republicans are. And then he wakes up one morning, and Cruz is out.

Tony Beam

Today I have to face the fact that maybe that is who we are. I mean, you realize 6-- what was it? You've probably seen the numbers. 6 or 7 out of 10 Republicans-- I think it's been consistently 6 out of 10 agree that we ought to ban all Muslims from coming to the United States. And so maybe this whole thing is a collective voice saying to me, you think this is not who we are? Yeah, it is. Wake up, dude. This is--

I have an atheist that calls me pretty regularly. And he gives me what for on the issues, particularly moral issues. But we've had some pretty good give-and-takes too, philosophically. But one of the questions he always puts to me is, how does it feel to be on the wrong side of history? And my answer has always been, a lot better than it would feel to be on the wrong side of eternity. My values are deeper than the culture of the moment.

And I don't mean that in a-- golly, that sounded-- I don't mean that in an arrogant way. I mean it in a broken way that says, I realize that I may be swimming against the tide.

Zoe Chace

So are you a Republican?

Tony Beam

Yeah, I'm still a Republican today because I haven't done anything about it. But it would break my heart to not be associated anymore. I mean, some people can just walk away. I mean, it would break my heart. But I'm not going to stay in the Republican Party if the Republican Party is not going to be conservative and it's not going to stand for traditional values.

Sean Cole

It's jarring when you're rolling along with a group of people, for years sometimes. They're like family. And then you hit this one dividing point that makes you think, wait, is that who we are? Because if that's who we are, what does that say about who I am? Even if the "we" is just you and one other person, it's hard. And that's what our show is about today, in two acts-- two families with two very different contentions. Stay with us.

Act One: Whose Great Idea Was This?

Sean Cole

Act One, "Whose Great Idea was This?" This first story deals with something controversial that's covered now and then in the news. But this is the first time I've heard it talked about so personally as opposed to abstract and far away. It comes to us from Mariya Karimjee, and I'll let her explain what's at issue. But I just want to say here that, as Ira sometimes says, this story does acknowledge the existence of sex, and it probably isn't right for young kids. OK, here's Mariya.

Mariya Karimjee

When I was in high school, my mother caught me reading a grocery store Harlequin novel in my room. She raised one eyebrow as I shoved it under the covers. It wasn't until weeks later, driving me somewhere, that she mentioned she'd seen it. I remember the firm line of her mouth as she explained that sex was almost never a good feeling. Don't go looking for that, she told me. That's almost never true.

I hadn't had sex, but I had started to wonder about it. My mother said that she thought, for men, it was the way that they described it in the books. For us, she said, it's different. At the time, I assumed that by "us" she meant women in general. Later I wondered if she meant her and me specifically.

When I was seven years old and living in Karachi, Pakistan, my mother took me to the pediatrician. While I sat on a stool, polishing imaginary dirt off the buckles on my Mary Janes, my mother quietly asked if it was time for me to get the bug removed. According to my mother, a bug was growing in an egg down there-- her language, not mine-- and that it would hatch and eventually crawl to my brain unless we removed it, she said. My pediatrician agreed. It was time to see the woman who removes the bug.

A girl down the street that I'd grown up with had her bug removed, my grandmother told me. She was also seven, and after she came home from the operation, she felt fine, enough so to jump up and down on her bed. It was a story my grandmother told with enthusiasm. My older cousins, both girls, were each presented with a piece of gold jewelry when they returned home from their respective operations. Remembering this, I asked specifically for a simple gold chain with a teardrop pearl at the end.

I did not feel well enough to go around jumping on beds after my surgery. For two days, I wore what I can only describe as a big-girl diaper, wet with blood. Peeing was so painful that I tried to last for hours without going, until my mother explained that I could give myself an infection. For the next year, I'd break out into a cold sweat whenever I saw the kind-faced woman who, on a tarp on her living room floor, had spoken to me softly as she took a knife and cut me. I received the exact necklace I had requested and wore it all the time.

Soon after my 11th birthday, my parents, brother, and I moved to Texas. The Houston area, where we lived, happened to have a decent number of Muslims from the same sect we belonged to in Pakistan. We're called Dawoodi Bohra.

But unlike many of the other immigrant families we knew, my parents wanted my brother and I to fully assimilate into the world we'd moved into. They encouraged us to sign up for any activities. They enrolled us in summer camps and group sports. My mom in particular really saw the benefit of raising me in the US. She was worried that in Karachi I'd always be in the shadow of my younger brother. Boys are valued more than girls in a lot of ways there.

My family has always been close, but the move to the US cemented our closeness. But when I was 15, I overheard a woman at my mosque asking the woman next to her if her daughter had the operation already. Her question nudged something deep in my brain. Until that point, I honestly hadn't thought about my operation-- my bug. At that moment, the kind-faced woman came back to me. I could hear her comforting tone as she told me it would be over quickly.

I'm not sure what I googled, but soon after returning home from mosque, I had words to describe what I thought had happened to me. Female genital cutting. Female genital circumcision. Clitorectomy. Female genital mutilation, or FGM.

I sat with my copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves that my American aunt had given me. The book has photos and diagrams of female genitalia, and suggests using a mirror to be able to see and understand your body better. Locked in my bathroom with a hand mirror between my legs, I realized that there was no diagram in the book that could explain what I saw. It was really confusing.

Over the next few weeks, I continued searching for information on FGM online. Mainly I found articles about small tribal villages in Africa where girls sometimes had their labia sewn shut, and where infections, fistulas, and sometimes death could happen. I could see that what had happened to me was different from the cases I was reading about online.

That's when I decided to search for FGM with the name of my particular sect, Dawoodi Bohra. One lonely academic article came up, titled "The Practice of Female Circumcision Among Bohra Muslims." That was it.

Once I'd linked FGM to my culture, I was consumed by anger. I couldn't believe both that it had happened to me and that it had been completely ignored as a topic of discussion by my friends, by my religion, and above all by my own family. Why hadn't anyone said anything, especially my mother? She'd done this.

For the next several weeks, I didn't say anything to my mom about it. I'd go back and forth between being furious at her and remembering her cool hand on my forehead after I peed for the first time after being cut. When I finally brought it up, the two of us were cleaning my bathroom. I was standing in the tub, a roll of steel wool in my hand. I hadn't meant to talk to her about it, but I was angry-cleaning and running out of things to scrub.

"What exactly was that bug thing you told me about?" My mother made a face I didn't recognize and didn't know how to interpret. First, I was terrified that my question made no sense, that I'd have to clarify further. Then I realized I was even more scared that it had made perfect sense.

My mother's explanation came out as fumbled as my question, something about how women shouldn't be sexual, and shortening my clitoris. "You removed the part of me that makes me feel good while having sex?" I asked. I was 15 and armed with Our Bodies, Ourselves and some internet articles. I thought I knew. I thought I appreciated exactly what had been taken away from me. It'd take me another five years to realize I had no idea.

"I didn't have a choice," said my mother, "and it happened to me too. All seven-year-old Bohri girls have to go through this," she said. I slammed the door shut in her face and waited. She didn't try and open it back up.

I couldn't understand how my mother-- the woman who made sure I got all the same opportunities as my brother, who cried when I told her I needed a training bra for gym and then got me one anyway, who attended every free seminar about preparing her children for college-- how could she be the same person who'd watched as a stranger cut me? I learned what it was like to love someone without forgiving them.

My college roommate and I would never be close. One night, as I highlighted a sociology text, my roommate asked me if I masturbated. I sputtered, "no." "You should try it," she told me. She moved off her twin bed and onto the corner of mine. "Don't be so prude," she said when I cringed.

I attended a small all-women's liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke, and it was a far cry from the conservative, Baptist, perfectly-coiffed Texas girls I knew as friends in high school. I could never really confide in them.

But to my college roommate, I inexplicably opened up. I told her everything I could think of. I confessed that I had no idea what it meant to have a clitorectomy, that I had no idea of the extent of the damage. I explained about the girls in the African villages and the pictures of their labia sewn shut, making clear that this wasn't my situation. She smoothed my back, chewing on her lip.

In the months that followed, we didn't get closer. We never talked like that again. Every few days, though, she encouraged me to go see a gynecologist at the school. Before going home for the summer, I made an appointment at student health services. 20 minutes after walking in, I was in stirrups.

If you're listening right now with small children, they may not want to hear this next part. When the doctor finally arrived, she sat down between my legs, murmuring something about a pap smear. "Let's have a look," she said. I clamped my knees together and started bawling.

The doctor didn't miss a beat. "Why don't you sit right up, and let's talk about any questions you may have." She had questions of her own too. "When did this happen?" "How long did it hurt?" "Are you able to wipe yourself with toilet paper without discomfort?"

The doctor admitted up front that she didn't know much, but said that taking a closer look might help her out. When I finally let her examine me, she let out a long, low breath. For a few long moments, she looked without speaking. Then she asked me for my cell number. She would ask around, see if anyone in the area knew more than she did.

"What I can tell you is that there's a lot of thin scar tissue," she said. "This doesn't look like a full clitorectomy," she added, explaining that while she'd never seen one before, it looked like a partial cut. "Did a medical professional do this?" she asked. I didn't know, I admitted.

The question would linger with me, and for months I would weigh the consequences of asking my mother. Later, after I put my clothes on, she came back in to hug me. "Come see me anytime with any questions," she said. And before I could stop myself, I blurted out, can I ever have an orgasm? She handed me a few printed pamphlets on healthy masturbation.

I figured out that getting to orgasm wasn't going to be easy. Even when I tried, any wrong move, any sudden accidental movement, would shoot an incredible pain inside of me. I hardly ever mention this-- to anyone. Even when friends who knew my secret talked about sex, I would pretend I was just like them. I'd assure them that I was hooking up randomly with people, same as they were. It's ridiculous, I know, but I didn't know what to do.

When I finally started dating, it would take me months to let my boyfriend know why we weren't progressing past second base. In his dorm room in DC, I took three shots of green apple vodka and then blurted out as much as I could. My boyfriend silently listened, holding my hands as I spoke. He didn't ask questions or try to break up with me. He told me he would wait until I was ready. I wondered if I would ever be ready.

After a year of dating him, I decided that I needed to get it over with. I broached the subject with my boyfriend. I wanted to have sex before the end of the summer. I don't want you to stop, even if I look like it's hurting me, I told him. He grimaced, but I repeated the statement again and then again.

So one night, I drank a half a bottle of wine in 15 minutes as my boyfriend watched warily. For a blissful 45 minutes, we made out on the couch, his hands staying in all of the safe spots, the ones that months of dating had taught him didn't make me clench up. The wine turned my limbs heavy.

We moved from the couch to the bed. I closed my eyes, counting to control my heartbeat and the nausea welling up inside me. Technically, we began having sex. Pain shot up my body. I could feel it in my teeth and in the muscles of my jaw. My insides felt like they were being sandpapered. The pain was everywhere. We didn't continue. My boyfriend kissed my forehead, reminded me he loved me, and left for the bathroom. I sat in the bed and cried.

I was still crying when my boyfriend came out of the bathroom. He took one look at me and then told me he was heading out to our favorite neighborhood bar. I know that sounds callous, but he knew that in moments of distress, I rarely wanted to be comforted.

Then I called my mother. "Is sex ever good for you?" I asked her. There was a brief but important pause. I heard the click of a door and then her voice, clear, unmuffled. "Excuse me?" she asked. "I tried to have sex with my boyfriend," I said. "It didn't go well. It hurt so bad that I'm not sure I ever want to try it again. I know you don't think I should be having sex, but I'm so scared."

What I didn't say out loud, but what my mother instinctively knew, was what I was so scared of. It wasn't just that I was scared of sex but that because of that, true love would escape me forever, that I was unlovable.

She told me about how when she was a teenager, she saved up pocket change for Harlequin romances. All I wanted was to figure out how to feel like those women, she told me. She also told me how when she was with my dad, if he moved too fast, she'd feel sharp pain. I knew exactly what she was talking about, pain that suffocated any of the good. "I get panic attacks when that happens," I told her. "I did too," she told me. "Your father and I talked through what felt good, and we figured out a way," she explained.

It was a good conversation. I told my mother that I loved her. I kept wanting her to apologize for giving me the same pain that she herself had suffered, but she stayed quiet. As we said our goodbyes and were about to hang up, she suddenly said, unprompted, "I hate everyone else too. Those women on TV who love sex, who enjoy it, I hate them too."

Since that first experience with a gynecologist in college, I've been to a handful of other doctors. Many of them hadn't seen anyone who'd been cut before. When I'd peppered them with questions, they seemed hesitant to respond with authority. Only once since my college ex did I hook up with anyone again-- try to hook up, that is. It too went badly.

That time prompted me to take action. I visited a doctor who specialized in victims of FGM. I was living without health insurance that year. And when I called her office explaining this, the receptionist told me to plan to spend somewhere around $2,000 for the consult. It was all of my savings.

The money was worth it. This doctor, unlike so many of the gynecologists I'd seen before, didn't wince when she peered between my legs. She didn't over-apologize or pat my knees. She didn't murmur in a hushed whisper, like the medical resident at Columbia, "oh, bless your dear heart." Instead, she silently examined me. She'd heard of the religious sect that I belong to and had examined other girls like me.

She explained that because the cutting is done in the living room without proper medical equipment, for girls in my sect, the results varied. Some of the girls can easily go on to have great sex lives. But for me, the main difference was in the extensive scar tissue and the nerve damage.

I'd read of a surgery where a doctor was grafting other genital tissue as part of a regenerative process. I asked her about it. She shook her head. "I wouldn't recommend this," she said. "The science was unreliable."

She told me what I'd long suspected. I'd probably never have a wonderful, easy, uncomplicated sex life. Instead, sex for me would likely involve many careful conversations with my partner, a sex therapist, and a willingness to trust a human beyond what I could imagine.

I wasn't horribly mutilated or defective in a way that made me incapable of enjoying sex. She explained, "this is not terminal. This is not a life sentence. Find a sex therapist you trust. Learn to allow yourself to let go." I wasn't sure what she meant and didn't ask further questions. In the moments after she gave me her verdict, she mentioned a support group she held at Brigham and Women's Hospital. I nodded enthusiastically, knowing I'd never attend.

A few years ago, I moved back to Karachi for work. My parents had moved back while I was in college. Here's a quick little explainer about Karachi, just so you know what to picture. Karachi is a huge city with around 22 million people. It's modern, and it's not. It has gleaming, gorgeous, multi-story malls and large movie theaters that play the latest Hollywood and Bollywood films. People are on Tinder.

Karachi also gets listed as among the most dangerous mega cities in the world. There's no international tourism. There's beggars at almost every street corner and piles of burning trash pretty much everywhere in the city, even the really nice areas.

The Dawoodi Bohra sect, which I'm from, is a small, typically pretty well-off minority in Karachi. There's about 40,000 of us. I live in a neighborhood made up entirely of other Bohris.

Readjusting to life in Karachi as an adult was difficult. I reluctantly attended services at the same mosque I went to as a kid. I'd sit there and scan all of the faces to see if I could recognize the woman who had cut me. But then I realized that seated beside me were at least 100 other girls who had likely also been cut. I wondered what their sex lives were like. I'd sit fidgeting, wondering if any of them had escaped the cutting.

So I started asking women in Karachi to talk to me about this. Half of the women I asked said no. This woman said yes.

Sameena

I mean, whatever I can answer, I will.

Mariya Karimjee

Are you nervous?

Sameena

Not so much.

Mariya Karimjee

This is a friend of mine from childhood. She asked that I not use her real name, so I'm going to call her Sameena. Sameena is 27. We were friends when we were very young, but we didn't stay in touch after I moved to the US.

We sat and talked on my bedroom floor. Sameena said she'd been cut too. Unlike me, though, she knew the woman who did it. She was a distant relative.

Sameena

I remember that we were in her drawing room. I was lying on the floor. I think my mom was holding me. And she was holding my legs, and my mom must have been holding my arms and stuff. There was no-- I don't remember what equipment she used. Was it a blade or something else? I don't remember. She cut something.

Mariya Karimjee

Do you remember it hurting?

Sameena

I think so, yes, enough that I was screaming and crying. And then she put a bandage over it. And then she had this huge scissor, and I thought she was cutting something else again. She was bringing like a huge-ass scissors, so I screamed and I jumped. And then my mom held me and all of that. And then she said in Gujarati that she's cutting the bandage, not me again. And then she gave me candy.

And then I came home. And I knew that something had been cut, but obviously I didn't know why because we never spoke about it with friends and stuff. I mean, my mom told me, don't talk about it. I was told it was a bug. It was a bug. It's gone. You don't have it anymore. Chapter closed.

Mariya Karimjee

The bug story. I had thought that was specific to my family. Like me, Sameena figured out on her own what had been done to her. When she was 17, she read a change.org petition asking Bohris to ban clitorectomies. Almost every Bohri I know has seen it. Sameena thought it was probably drafted and circulated by Bohris who weren't as devout as she was. Why are they questioning this? she thought. Then she did the same thing I did. She asked her mother about it.

Sameena

My intention was not to speak to her in detail and ask her why she did it or why did they have to do it. It was like [GUJARATI], the quick question, why do we do it? And then she said, to curb the sexual desire of women so that they don't cheat and they don't get horny and sleep around. And she didn't use these words, but she said that this is why we do it, to curb your sexual desire.

Mariya Karimjee

Were you surprised by her answer?

Sameena

I wasn't surprised as such. I just felt like it was unfair. Why do you want to stop me from having casual sex? Why not men? So I think that's what I thought at that point, but I still don't remember feeling angry.

Mariya Karimjee

That was 10 years ago. She feels differently now.

Sameena

Right now I do feel some anger that this is done. I had a huge argument with my parents and, well, it didn't end up anywhere.

Mariya Karimjee

When was this argument?

Sameena

Recent.

Mariya Karimjee

Recent as in February of this year, three months ago. When she says this, I know exactly what prompted the argument. It was my brother.

In February, he spoke out against FGM, female genital mutilation, at a panel at the UN. We were asked to do the panel together, but I was out of the country, so he did it alone. He sat at a long, curved conference table in a stately room with wood walls. He was one of five people who spoke that day. It was videotaped.

Ammar Karimjee

"So many women in my life that I was close to had gone through this. And I was just shocked. I was in denial. I was frustrated. It's been over the last five to six years since then that I've really become involved in this movement."

Mariya Karimjee

My brother learned about FGM in his college anthropology class. He thought it was something that happened in rural African villages. He had no idea about me or our mom and grandmothers. Then a Bohri girl at college set him straight, and he called me immediately, saying, "why didn't you tell me?"

After he spoke at the UN, he posted about it on Facebook. It's a long, passionate post where he urges Bohri men not to stay silent and condone FGM. In the post, he says, "FGM is not simply a women's issue, but a human rights issue. Men must start seeing it as such," and that "FGM has absolutely no place in Islam. There's nothing in the Quran about it."

The video of my brother's speech made the rounds in the Bohri community. On Facebook, there was only a show of support. Bohris from around the world Liked my brother's stance on FGM.

But less publicly, my brother had sparked some controversy. His private message folder filled up with messages from Bohris who disagreed. My parents received texts from Bohri friends in Pakistan, Tanzania, the UK, and the US, warning them that they may get in trouble with the clergy for this. A high-ranking clergy member's wife strongly discouraged me from attending further services at my mosque. Like a lot of Bohris in Karachi, Sameena saw my brother's post and showed it to her parents.

Sameena

And with this, when I told my mom that I saw this on Facebook, my mom specifically told me not to Like it. She said, don't Like it. Don't share it.

We were at home. My dad was there as well. This is what my dad said, that your sexual desire, you have to curb it just so that the girls don't go around. And so I said, but guys do it. My mom was like, why don't you question [GUJARATI] then? Why don't you question [GUJARATI]? Why are you questioning this? I was like, because it's being done to me!

Mariya Karimjee

Quick translation. Sameena's mom basically argued, why not question everything we believe then? Praying five times a day. Fasting. Every major tenet of Islam. As Sameena pointed out, none of those things are an assault on her body. Anyhow, Sameena's fight with her parents went on.

Sameena

And then I was like, if having sex is a bad thing, and if you don't want me to do it, teach me not to do it like you taught me not to drink and eat pork. I don't do it, right? Similarly, if you will have taught me not to sleep around, I probably wouldn't. I mean, if consciously I have controlled myself, that's the point in Islam, to have that willpower to not do something. I would never eat pork because I've been told all my life, you're not supposed to eat it. I'm never going to eat it.

The point is, I know this is something that I'm not supposed to do. If you told us what we were doing to ourselves, and then had done it with consent, then it's a different thing. But at an age where I don't know what it is, you do something to me which is irreversible. And you don't have to cut something off just to curb that desire.

Mariya Karimjee

Well, what did they say back to that specific argument?

Sameena

Um--

Mariya Karimjee

Because I feel like it's a really good argument. You're like, OK, you've taught me right from wrong. So why is sex something that you didn't teach me? You just made a decision for me.

Sameena

I knew they did not have a response because, well, what do you say to your child who is asking you such a question? Because I'm not even sure if they knew why exactly they were doing it.

Mariya Karimjee

Did you feel like you'd won that argument?

Sameena

I think so, yes.

Mariya Karimjee

Do you think they thought that you'd won that argument?

Sameena

I think so. They didn't have an answer. Then my mom was like, well, I also pierced your ears, but you didn't say anything about that.

Mariya Karimjee

My mom said the same thing. She literally said the same thing. I was like, how is piercing my ears at six months old anything like getting my clitoris cut? Are you crazy? I cannot believe you would say that.

Sameena

I know.

Mariya Karimjee

Did that make you mad?

Sameena

I was super mad, yes.

Mariya Karimjee

The thing I really wanted to know, though, was much more personal. It was the question that had been haunting me from the moment I found out that I had been cut. My question centered on the very thing her parents told her was the goal of FGM, curbing women's desire.

Mariya Karimjee

I definitely feel desire. I'm just kind of wondering, is that true of you? Do you get turned on?

Sameena

I do.

Mariya Karimjee

You do get turned on?

Sameena

I do. Usually-- I mean, mostly if I'm watching something sexy. Then yeah, I do. So every time I watch TV or something and I get turned on, and then I think about what my parents said, that you don't feel any sexual desire, here I'm thinking that they said that when you get cut, you don't feel any desire. But I am feeling it, so maybe this kind of circumcision, it's not affecting me.

Mariya Karimjee

Sameena's not married, and she hasn't had sex. She's also not in pain the same way I am.

Mariya Karimjee

Have you ever tried to masturbate?

Sameena

I have.

Mariya Karimjee

And how'd that go for you?

Sameena

It works.

Mariya Karimjee

Well hey, that's so nice to hear. There is hope out there.

Sameena

Yeah. The thing is, I've never spoken to anyone in detail who has had sex about how it feels and stuff, so I don't know. And I haven't spoken to anyone who has been cut and has had sex. That is the thing.

Knowing that I've been cut, I can still masturbate. And I keep thinking that OK, maybe this is like a lesser level of orgasm or whatever feeling that I get. Maybe I don't feel as much desire as people who were not cut. Maybe if they hadn't done it, I would feel more desire than what I feel right now, maybe.

Mariya Karimjee

I told Sameena that I thought the whole idea of curbing desire is a myth and BS, and that saying that cutting limits a woman's desire is just a way to hide what the goal really is-- to take away our enjoyment of sex. Sameena didn't entirely agree.

Sameena

But I don't think that taking something away from us is their intention, because they're doing it without reason. I think for most parents-- like I know my friends' parents as well. I see my mom in each one of them. Their mothers and stuff, they're all like [GUJARATI].

Mariya Karimjee

[GUJARATI]. It's a part of our culture, her mom said.

Sameena

So they just do it without any reason, I guess. I mean, there's really not much logic. When you believe in something blindly, that's what they call faith. If everybody in the community is doing something, then it's something that you just do. I feel like it's like-- I don't know how to put this into words. My mother was the one who took me and did this to me. So I don't know if it's like a male-dominated thing, or if men don't want this for women, or if it's like just women have just taught themselves that they shouldn't enjoy this or something. I don't know if I'm making sense.

Mariya Karimjee

You're making perfect sense.

Sameena

OK.

Mariya Karimjee

She was making perfect sense. I had wondered the same thing. Why were women still subjecting their daughters to this? Until recently, my grandmother didn't even know what the term FGM meant. Out of the blue, she asked me to explain it. She read about it in the paper.

This time I told her about the bug story. I asked her if she remembered when I was cut and told her how wrong I thought the practice was. I asked her if she thought it was wrong. She mumbled something about the religious clergy wanting it done, and that she supposed they knew best. I was stunned. She seemed to have no idea what the surgery did exactly, what it took away. Before I left, my grandmother held my hand and said, "your mother tried to stop it."

I didn't understand. I couldn't even process what she'd said. It took me weeks to speak to my mother about that conversation I'd had with my grandmother. When I finally did, it was so hard to bring up, I just whispered to my mom, "did you try and stop them from cutting me?"

She explained it was my grandfather who had insisted that the women in the family be cut. He believed that if the religious clergy thought this was necessary, we were wrong to question it. The fights about having me cut grew so out of control that he threatened to kick my mother out of the family. My grandmother was silent about it all. After my mother told me what really happened, our relationship changed. My anger towards her was gone almost immediately.

I wish I could tell you definitively that things are changing among Bohris. Mainly because of the secrecy, people don't really say where they stand. After my brother spoke at the UN, my father was proud of him. He apologized to me for what happened. He said it's like if someone cut off his penis. I said, yep. He shared my brother's Facebook post with more than 50 of his friends.

And then within days, he lost his confidence. He got word from a close family member that he was on the wrong side of this and he shouldn't criticize the practice-- publicly. And "publicly" is the thing. He stopped sharing the post.

Recently a Bohri leader in Sydney was prosecuted and sent to jail for FGM. After that, a handful of clergy from the Bohri community around the world started circulating letters saying that cutting is illegal and we should stop doing it. That's on the heels of a small group of us who have become very vocal about ending FGM. That's what I can do. That's a new Bohri tradition.

Sean Cole

Mariya Karimjee. Her story came to us through a podcast called The Heart, which is really great and well-produced. You should listen to it. You can find their version of the story this week on theheartradio.org or wherever you get your podcasts. A print version of Mariya's story was originally published on the website thebigroundtable.com.

[MUSIC - "NEW TRADITION" BY COMPANY]

Coming up, a brother and sister with extraordinarily similar first names and completely opposite ways of dealing with what happened to their dad when they were little. That's in a minute from WBEZ Chicago when our program continues.

Act Two: Who Wants To Know?

Sean Cole

It's This American Life. I'm Sean Cole. Every week we choose a theme and play you all kinds of stories related to that theme. This week, "Who Do We Think We Are?", stories of folks trying to reconcile their beliefs with those of someone or someones they're related to. We're up to Act Two of the show. Act Two, "Who Wants to Know?"

This last story is also about folks coming to a kind of reckoning with their parents, but in a very different way. It's about a brother and sister named Nema and Neda Semnani. Their father died violently when they were very little. Nema, the brother, actually never met his father, and their mother died of ovarian cancer back in 2010. After she died, they packed up boxes and boxes of her stuff and sent them off with various relatives.

Nema ended up with a bunch of the boxes himself, and a filing cabinet, which he hated. He didn't want to look at any of it. Both of his parents were dead. There was history in there that he didn't want to deal with. And he was moving around a lot, apartment to apartment.

Nema Semnani

Imagine lugging around a both literal and figurative box of just bad with you, like figuratively full of bad stuff and physically a lot of it. You know?

Sean Cole

Yeah.

Nema Semnani

You're like, that's my box of bad. Where do you keep your tragedy?

Sean Cole

It's in this box.

Nema Semnani

It's in this box over there, in the file cabinet.

Neda Semnani

I remember one conversation. He was like, I'm just going to throw them away. Like angrily, I'm going to throw them out.

Sean Cole

This is Neda, Nema's sister. She's three years older. She felt very differently about the boxes.

Neda Semnani

I was like, "don't!" "Do you know what's in them?" He's like, "no." I was like, "well then, you [BLEEP]ing can't throw them away."

Sean Cole

So Nema tucks away the boxes and the filing cabinet in a storage unit outside Washington, DC. And then a few years after their mom dies, Neda's trying to piece together the details of their parents' lives and what happened to their father. And she says to Nema, can we go check out that storage unit? So they head over there, and it's like a Hardy Boys episode.

Neda Semnani

For some reason we're the only two there, but I feel like in storage units, it always feels like you're the only one there. And we opened the door of the storage unit. And there's all this crap. There's clothes and there's whatever, and there's a rusted-out filing cabinet. And I open it. And literally all by itself in this mass of stuff is just this, just this folder with my dad's name on it, sitting very patiently, as if it had been waiting for me all this time.

Sean Cole

It was a trove of information about their father. And it wasn't just that one folder. In another drawer there were more files, and more in some of the boxes.

Neda Semnani

And a few days later, I'm going through them, or maybe it was the next day. There are handwritten letters and Dad's passport.

Sean Cole

She showed it to me.

Sean Cole

Can I look at his picture?

Neda Semnani

Oh, yes.

Sean Cole

Handsome guy.

Neda Semnani

Yeah, he looks a lot like Nema, if Nema shaved. And I just remember thinking. I felt like-- I don't know. It felt like I was on the right path.

Sean Cole

This is what was in the box of bad, what Neda began finding out more and more about as she dug through the folders and files. So their parents were both from Iran. They met when they were students at Berkeley in California in the '60s. And they became involved in a leftist political movement there that opposed the shah of Iran. There was the revolution in '79. The shah goes into exile. And all of these leftists who had been agitating from abroad come streaming back into the country, back into Iran, high on the possibility of new freedoms in their country.

Neda and Nema's parents were two of them. Except the shah was replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini, an Islamic fundamentalist who, arguably, was even more restrictive. And when the leftists-- the secular leftists-- agitated against this new regime, a lot of them were imprisoned, including Neda and Nema's dad. Their mother was still pregnant with Nema at the time. Neda was two years old.

She and her mother escaped back to the States. Nema was born about a month after they got there. And then, four months after that, their dad and 20 other activists were executed. And as Neda got older, this image of her father formed in her head.

Neda Semnani

I believed he was a superhero. He was kind of a weird superhero, though, because no one really talked about him very much. So I think maybe that's part of the reason I thought, maybe he's still in prison.

I remember asking Mom, how do you know he's dead? We left before he died, so how do you know? Couldn't he have been like a ninja?

Sean Cole

You said ninja.

Neda Semnani

Yeah. I don't know why ninja. Or like karate. Maybe I said karate. Couldn't he have done karate and gotten out?

Sean Cole

30 years later, every new fact that Neda uncovers about her dad is like a strand of DNA she can use to re-engineer him, to bring him back. For example, Neda learned that in Tehran, after someone informed on their father, he and Neda's mother and Neda all went into hiding. Neda only has shadowy memories of this-- more like memories of memories. She certainly didn't know back then that her family was essentially waiting for the government to come and arrest everyone. And they figured they wouldn't be waiting long.

Neda Semnani

But then a week went by, two weeks went by, a month went by. And then January was February, February was March, and still nothing. And apparently the stress of it had gotten to my dad. One side of his face kind of froze and stopped working for a month or something, just like the left side of his-- or one side of his face just fell.

Sean Cole

Every time she found out a detail like this, she'd want to tell her brother, to share it with him. This is what Mom and Dad went through, our mom and dad. This is where we come from. But Nema, her brother, wasn't interested. Not that he wasn't interested, he aggressively did not want to know any of these details she was finding out. This whole project of exhuming the past, re-animating their parents, what did he have to gain from that?

Nema Semnani

She has certain fragments and puzzle pieces of the father. I don't have any of that. So I got the privilege of creating him.

Sean Cole

It's funny that you would think of that as a privilege.

Nema Semnani

I can't-- how else would you think of it? Obviously it sucks. I'm not going to say it doesn't suck. But right now my father is perfect.

I already have 100 out of 100 right now. It can only go down. There's a very good chance that you know more than I do.

Sean Cole

No, no, no, no. Nema, I certainly know more than you do.

Nema Semnani

OK, good.

Sean Cole

Which is a funny feeling because it's your history. I mean, it's your family.

Nema Semnani

Yeah.

Sean Cole

Whereas Neda is swimming in the details of the revolution and the escape and the execution practically every day-- she's writing a book about it, actually-- and those details are sometimes hard to carry around. A bit of what she's learned. And here I'll just issue a personal content advisory warning to Nema, who, if you're listening to this and you still don't want to know this stuff, you should turn down the radio for a minute.

Firstly, the group their dad was part of staged an armed uprising against Khomeini. It was a terrible plan, and it went badly. The irony is that their dad opposed the uprising, didn't take part in it. But it didn't matter. The governmental guards arrested him, bound his hands behind him with a rope, and marched him back to his parents' house.

This whole eerie scene ensues there, with their dad, their aunt, and these four armed guards sitting around, waiting for their mother to arrive. She doesn't arrive. She calls instead. The aunt says, everything's OK. Bring Neda to your mother's place. It was code. Her mother lived in California.

The escape through Iranian Kurdistan was harrowing and took days. They rode horses and walked and were driven by smugglers-- smugglers who abandoned them on the roadside twice. They were desperately thirsty and hungry. Neda went half crazy for a little bit from heatstroke. Again, she was two. Their mom, pregnant with Nema, fell down an embankment at one point but climbed back up and kept walking.

Meantime, Neda and Nema's dad was being held in solitary confinement at Evin prison. Neda describes his cell block as a prison within a prison, filled with torture devices. So Neda understands Nema not wanting to know these things.

Nema Semnani

That's another thing, is Neda knows about the torture. He was tortured in these things, and she knows about it. It's the difference between knowing that it happened and maybe even knowing the methods at which they were implemented. And I'm pretty sure she knows these things. Put that very high on the list of things I don't want to know. And why the hell does she want to know? Right?

Sean Cole

Nema learns about these things almost by accident. Through his earmuffs, as he says, things just creep in now and then. And yeah, the torture is very high on that list of things he doesn't want to know. But practically everything's on that list.

Neda Semnani

He's allowed to decide the stories he tells himself, I think. I mean, they're his parents too. I mean, I think that there's stuff that he should know, or at least be given the option to. So when someone had sent us the footage of Dad's trial, I sent it to him. And then he told me a couple days ago that he watched, like, a second of it.

Nema Semnani

It was just long enough to see-- I watched it for 30 seconds, caring not what he said but how he said it.

Sean Cole

You just wanted to--

Nema Semnani

I wanted to see. Does he do what I do? Does he tilt his head a little bit? Does he speak with his hands? Does he gesticulate a lot?

Sean Cole

And did he do any of that stuff?

Nema Semnani

Not that I could really tell.

Sean Cole

Their dad doesn't move around a lot in the video, actually. His hands are resting on a table. He looks tired, defeated. In certain moments, he seems near tears. It's not the kind of video you watch when you want to have a sunny idea of where you come from. Still, in a way, Nema had the same experience watching that little bit of the video that Neda has had this whole time in all of her research. He says it proved that his dad was a living person, that he wasn't a myth. But he doesn't think he's going to watch any more of it.

It's funny, but Neda and Nema's mom knew they'd end up each feeling the way they do about the past. She all but said it in an interview with StoryCorps, that traveling recording booth where people tell stories about their lives. In this case, their mom was just talking to one of the StoryCorps volunteers, who asked her what her late husband would have thought of the family's life in America.

Mrs. Semnani

And more than anything, I think he would have been proud of his two children. He never saw his son. And his daughter, who was the apple of his eyes, they didn't see each other after she was two and a half. So his sort of ghost hovers over my daughter. But my son, who never knew him, I think has a longing for a father he never knew. But there is not a ghost hovering over him, as there is one for my daughter.

Sean Cole

Neda first heard that recording long after their mother died. Nema has never heard it, unless he's listening to this right now. But I did tell him what she said. And he said, that's 100% accurate. She was a smart woman.

[MUSIC - "WHAT I AM" BY EDIE BRICKELL & NEW BOHEMIANS]

Credits

Sean Cole

Our program was produced today by Neil Drumming and Nancy Updike. Our production staff includes Zoe Chace, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lyra Smith, and Matt Tierney. Our editor is Joel Lovell. Editorial help from Julie Snyder and Elna Baker. Other staff, Elise Bergerson, Emily Condon, Kimberly Henderson, and Seth Lind. Research help from Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Extra special thanks to my boss, Ira Jeffrey Glass. You know, he performs magic too. And he was doing this magic trick for the Cookie Monster the other day where he presented him with three sealed envelopes.

Neda Semnani

And I was like, do you know what's in them? And he was like, no.

Sean Cole

I'm Sean Cole. Ira will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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